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Losing Ground

By Revati Laul

 

Not all elections are equal. But the difference between the Bihar assembly election and U.P. and on this day, between Gujarat and Himachal is this. Some elections are the nerve centre of our body politic. And sitting in the heart of that nerve centre in Gujarat, I ask myself; what is the job of a political reporter? If I look at the way in which people are increasingly disdainful of `the media’ and `exit polls,’ I would say the answer is this: it is a barren and hollow place to be if it meant sticking a mike in the face of a BJP or Congress party spokesperson to extract one homilie after another. “We’ve won although we’ve lost,” or “We may have lost ground but we’ve won.” Because in all the hype and hyperbole, the real story never gets asked. What does all of this mean for the people? That as I see it is the job of every political reporter to answer. Feet in mud, noses in vada pav stalls and the sweat and the blood of the people.

Here is what the report from the trenches looks like. The one you won’t hear about on TV or read in the more arithmetic of politics type of writing. The palpable fear in the eyes of a tribal farmer who works seasonally at a construction site a hundred kilometres away. Who let go of two days of daily wages plus spent on bus fare and food to get to his village and vote. This is a man who earns 250 rupees in a day and cannot spend more than 20 or 30 of that so he can bring the rest back home and live off it in the next season. “Why have you spent about 2,000 bucks just to vote when you have no money for food and live in a tarpaulin tent on the road?” I asked him. Fear was the reluctant but honest reply. “Fear of what,” I persisted. “The fear of having your name struck off the ration card and BPL card and the panchayat coming to your home and threatening you if you don’t comply.” As he finished speaking, the other men – all tribals; standing with him nodded in agreement. 22 years of the BJP has driven that point home. It is a well-oiled machine, which does not mean that it delivers on any of its election promises. It means one thing only. It delivers fear with regularity and precision.

 

Far away from the tribal districts in Northern and Eastern Gujarat, an autorickshaw driver in Ahmedabad city brought home a few more truths. His gold earrings glistened in the midday winter sun as he spoke his mind. “These earrings,” I wanted to know where they were from. The aesthetics are always important. “Palanpur,” he declared proudly. And added – “Aadha tola sona” which is what they weighed. And finally, the price. “17,000 rupees,” he added without my asking. It wasn’t hard to guess he was a BJP supporter. Part of the aspirational middle class that believed the party delivered the one thing they wanted, in order to feel secure. The total and complete emasculation of Muslims in the state. The driver turned to me to explain. “Madam, Modi is like a dacoit.” He’s burned big holes in our pockets. We are in penury and now we’re going to pay even more when the bullet train he’s planned actually starts to take off.” This was some serious bile coming out. The auto-rickshaw driver drew a straight line between what he believed was a 88,000 crore loan that Modi inked with the Japanese Prime Minister to build a bullet train in the state; with an eventual drain of wealth. Was it the effect of demonetization and GST at work here? Did it mean that Modi’s popularity was on the wane? Yes and no. The vitriol against him has been spewing in the streets of Gujarat for a year or more, then disappearing like sludge into drains.

But it goes along with another factor that has yet again displayed itself in the current Gujarat election. Hindutva. Ever since the demolition of the Babri Masjid 25 years ago, the well-oiled machinery of the Hindu right has instilled the fear of the other in the minds of every aspirational, gold-earring wearing Gujarati. The auto-driver summed it up. “Madam, Modi is a daku. But he is doing one thing that is making us vote for him again and again. He is keeping the Muslims in their place.”

What does the verdict of a 100 and more seats say about the people who voted in favour, then? That thirty years of indoctrination by the Hindu right will take more than a few campaign speeches and visiting of temples by Rahul Gandhi to come unstuck. And that the fear of The Muslim as The Other hasn’t changed too much from the last election in 2012. In tribal villages I visited, as people gathered around tiny fires the night before they voted; they made one thing amply clear. “Hindustan is for Hindus.” Repeated over and over. And what has this Hindu-favouring regime done for the tribals, I asked. Much raucous laughter followed, making it clear that this election was mainly about a twin fear playing out in people’s minds. The fear of going against the BJP and the fear of the Muslim.

As the results started to trickle in, there was another kind of fear that rent the air. What if this is a close contest? What if the BJP loses? Will their supporters take to the streets and burn buses? Effigies? People? In private spaces in living rooms, where some watched the results on TV, there was a little bit of relief when the last votes were counted. It was over. There was no reason for right wing vigilantes to resort to violence. The party they support has won.

In the face of such extraordinary fear and such little hope from the opposition, it would be easy to forget the real heroes of this election. And indeed, they seem to have been quickly forgotten. The people who turned up in thousands, knowing that going against the grain and voting for the Congress may have their names struck from ration cards. Or grants put on hold. But who went out and voted for the Congress anyway. Not because they believed in the party or the speeches or Rahul Gandhi. But because they preferred to put their votes in a void, just to shake things up a little. It was enough dissent of enough people with no faith in the alternative or hope of their coming to power; for it to amount to over 70 seats falling off the ruling party’s grid. Considering the atmosphere in which this dissent was voiced, that was quite a resounding voice of dismissal. Dismissal of the BJP’s PR and that of the Congress. And of us media-wallahs that perhaps need to be reminded that we too are losing ground. The 70 seats worth of voters that went against the regime defied all the odds in their utter rejection of everything except their right to say, frankly my dears, we couldn’t give a damn.

 

Revati Laul is a journalist based in Delhi. She tweets at @revatilaul

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Fear and Loathing in Ahmedabad

By Revati Laul

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film maker, currently based out of Gujarat; where she is working on a book on the perpetrators of the 2002 riots. She is the creator of this blog. She tweets @revatilaul

P  A  R  T       O  N   E

If I told you that given a choice between the people and a convicted rapist, the courts have chosen to protect the rapist, you’d say I am making it up. I wish this time that the truth weren’t so bizarre. Because it also directly impacts my personal safety.  But I will come directly to the point.

On the 28th of February, 2002, a man called Suresh Richard was part of a bloodthirsty mob in the Naroda Patiya area of the city of Ahmedabad. He killed quite a few people that day, raped women and helped tear out the foetus of an unborn child from its pregnant mother and then raped and killed her. He was eventually convicted for these crimes in 2012 and put away in prison where he is now serving a 31 year jail sentence. But prisoners get two weeks or even a month out of jail in the year, to spend time with family, attend to urgent and pressing matters. Even convicts like Suresh are entitled to this parole time. Sort of the jail equivalent of summer holidays from school. But in his case, he has to apply for parole and the High Court of Gujarat has to review the case and decide whether it is safe enough to let him out. Once they decide that it is, they send a court order to the police station in the area, so that the police can keep an extra vigil, just in case.

The `just in case’ bit is important here, because Suresh is a man who wears his violence proudly, on his sleeve. He bragged about his crimes of 2002 to a journalist who he believed was a fellow mobster. And said to him, unaware that this was being recorded; “I raped Muslim women in 2002 till they were pulverized to pickle.”

The court may still think that even such a man has the right to visit his family and look after pressing matters once in a while. So in July 2015, they gave him parole. Suresh used that time to rape his wife. Or so his wife said to a court. He tied her hands behind her back, forced himself on her and stubbed out cigarette butts on her hand. She has filed for sexual abuse, violence and also for divorce.  Taking a serious view of the matter of how he conducted himself on parole, the court turned his request down the next time he applied. This was in October 2015. But then in January 2016, Suresh applied for parole again. This time he told the court, his daughter had gone missing, he needed two weeks to look for her.  It was granted. During that time, I, a journalist who is writing about Suresh and people like him; decided to try and meet him and see if he would agree to talk to me. He lurched forward,  hit me across the face till my eye began to bleed. Then pulled me and dragged me to the nearby wall, pinned me against it, removed an entire clump of hair from its follicle, kicked and beat me repeatedly. I didn’t think I would get out alive. But luckily, his son felt sorry for me and got together with two or three of the hundred bystanders and they peeled him off me. I ran. And filed my own case in court.  Suresh’s parole was abruptly cancelled and he was marched back to prison. The head of the Special Operations Group in the police, B C Solanki held a press conference in which he said that the people of Ahmedabad and of Gujarat should not feel unsafe. Suresh’s parole is cancelled and he will not be granted it again. The system works and this was a minor glitch.

And from then on, requests by Suresh for parole were cancelled. Until the 29th of November. Last night. I was out to dinner when Suresh’s ex wife told me that he was out on parole again. He had dialed her brother’s number and asked to meet.  That’s just fantastic. A man who  raped his wife gets out on parole and sends her into a panic, because he can.  How did the court grant him parole? I needed to know. But every court reporter and police person I called had no information on this. Not the Additional Commissioners of police who had once been in charge of my assault case. Nor the commissioner who had been in charge of that area. “No court order has been sent to the police station where Suresh lives, so we don’t know if he is out on parole.”

Finally, I got through to the police inspector in charge of the Sardarnagar police station, the area where Suresh lives. “Can you please just send a constable to his house and tell me if he is indeed out on parole?” I pleaded. I needed to make arrangements.  For myself and also to inform his ex wife. The last time he was out on parole, the day I was assaulted; I had to live like a fugitive. In an undisclosed location, until the police confirmed to me that his parole was cancelled. At least I always have the option of fleeing Ahmedabad if I need to. What about his ex wife? Who protects her the next time he is out?

“Look, if I need to pack my bags and run again, I need to know okay, so just send someone to his house, will you?” I said to the cop.

He was a good cop. He sent someone. And called me a few minutes later. “Yes ma’am. He is out on parole. My constable is there with him just now and he is in his house. He is out for fourteen days.”

And now comes the even  funnier part of my story. I continued. “When did he get out, how many of those fourteen days are gone and how many left?” I asked.

“That I don’t know ma’am because there is no paper work. The High court has not sent us its parole order. So we have no idea that he was out or who passed the order or when.”

So a man who first bragged about raping and killing women in 2002 gets out on parole. He uses that parole to rape his wife. Then he gets out on parole again and attacks a journalist. Then he is out again and this time the court doesn’t even send word to the cops. The cops only find out that Suresh is out on his bi-annual vacation, because the two women he victimized on previous holidays from jail told them so.

And with this, I come back to where I began. Who do our courts protect? That is the question. The people or the convict? You want answers? Go ask the judges. But first, you need to find out who the judge was. So far, there is no paperwork. Good luck, y’all. I am packing my bags. And so is his ex wife. No address of course.

……………

P  A  R  T       T  W  O

“Did you sleep last night?” said Suresh’s wife to me as we sat at the lawyer’s desk in Ahmedabad.

“No,” I said. “Did you?”

“No,” she said. But she needn’t have spoken. Her owl eyes said it all already.

“I had a nightmare,” she continued. “I was standing at a chai shop in the street where I live and suddenly, I see Suresh standing next to me with his face covered. I was wondering why he had covered his face when he pulled out a knife and stabbed me in the stomach.”

This is what fear is like for Suresh’s wife, living with the knowledge that the man who attacked and raped her while out on parole last year, is now out again. This time at the special discretion of the Inspector General of Prisons of Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad, Mr Jebaliya. Suresh `Richard’ Jadeja is convicted for 31 years for heinous crimes committed during the 2002 Gujarat riots. He is in jail for raping and killing Muslim women and children in an anti-Muslim pogrom that took place that year. His wife knows what it was like to live with such a man and to stake her life on running away from him after he raped her whilst out from jail on his parole in 2015. When she reported this to the police and filed for rape, domestic violence and divorce, Suresh’s subsequent paroles were cancelled. No time out from jail for this man, a judge ruled. Until January 2016, when Suresh’s daughter went missing and the previous parole violation was ignored. Parole granted. This time I, the journalist writing a book about the perpetrators of 2002, went to meet him and was attacked for it. Parole violation no 2. And so the rest of Suresh’s parole was cancelled. Statements were made all over again about how the people of Ahmedabad must not worry for their safety. The dangerous parole violating criminal will not be out again.

But now, Suresh’s wife’s nightmare was a reality. He had been granted his annual leave, given to convicts routinely, once a year. It’s called a furlough. And it’s granted by the top person in charge of the prison. In this case, Mr Jebaliya.

Suresh’s wife and I wrote out our pleas  to the police stations where we live asking for his furlough to be cancelled. We got the police stations in our respective areas to sign this and our lawyer to preface it with a legal note. And we took this to the office of the Deputy General of Police who is also the head of the Sabarmati Central Jail, T S Bisht. When we walked into Mr Bisht’s office, he was watching TV.

“Yes, what is it?” he asked, turning towards us.

“Sir, do read this petition please.”

“What is it, tell me?” he shot back.

“It’s an appeal to have Suresh Richard’s furlough cancelled because the previous two times he was out from jail he attacked me and raped his wife. We fear for our lives since he is now out again.”

“Why have you come here, you should go to your local police stations and file an appeal,” he said.

“We did do that already Sir and that document is attached here to this petition, which is why I ask you to read it Sir,” I replied, a little irritated by his focus on procedure and complete lack of concern for our safety.

“I didn’t write the furlough, the I.G. Mr Jebaliya did. It’s not my job to look into this, go to him,” he replied, irritated that I was irritated.

We went to the next room, Mr Jebaliya’s office. His secretary said that `sahib’ is out of station in the district of Amreli in South Gujarat, 240 kilometres away; and will only be back tomorrow.

Of course Mr Bisht who sent us there know this. Back we went to his office.

“Sir, Mr Jebaliya is out of town…”

“So contact him when he returns,” was his curt reply.

“Sir, with each passing day, we are more fearful. It’s a question of our safety. Our lives are in danger. Please understand the urgency of this case. And the furlough is granted by this office, so it from here that it can be cancelled,” I pleaded,  it seemed, in vain.

“I cannot do anything. You have to go to the I.G.”

Mr Bisht was in charge directly of the Sabarmati Central jail and is entirely in charge when the I.G. is away. So why would he send us out with total lack of regard for our safety, I was thinking to myself.

And it made my blood boil.

“Sir, if this was your family’s safety at stake, you wouldn’t be saying wait till the I.G. returns…” I said to him, my anger clearly audible now.

“I can’t do anything,” he said, turning his face back to the TV.

Suresh’s wife and I stormed out of Mr Bisht’s office deeply frustrated and helpless. We asked for  a copy of the furlough. It’s an interesting document. It says  – the conditions for granting the furlough are:

The convict must abide by the law, must now meet with unlawful or criminal people or keep bad company, must live in the specified address…that being Chharanagar, that comes under the supervision of the Sardarnagar police station, must check in with the Sardarnagar police once a day, must not leave the confines of the city of Ahmedabad…etc.  Standard format.

I can totally picture a two time parole violator signing this and saying – Yes, I will do exactly as you say. The trouble is, the police station still has no written order so they have not started to ask Suresh to check in once a day. This, despite the fact that he is now out on the loose for an entire week.

The furlough was approved on the 24th of October by the I.G. for a period of two months. In that two month window, Suresh is granted a 14 day leave from jail, which he can avail of any time in that 2 month period. The start date of the 14 day leave is the day he pays a surety of 3000 rupees. That date was not mentioned on the copy of the furlough so we were still in the dark about his exact period of leave.

But even more worrying than that was the question in front of Suresh’s wife and me – who do we turn to next? I decided to call the I.G., never mind if he was out of town. This was important. I left a message on his phone and he called back.

“Sir, my name is Revati Laul, I was attacked by Suresh Richard in January this year when was out on parole and he also attacked and raped his wife on his previous parole…we are scared for our lives and have appealed to your office today to have his furlough cancelled. Can we meet you about this tomorrow, Sir?” I asked.

“I have to see…when I am back, what other appointments I have and then I can let you know in the next 2-3 days,” was the reply.

“Sir it’s a question of our safety. Our lives are in danger. Can we please meet you as soon as possible Sir?” I repeated.

“Why don’t you put all of this in writing?” he said.

“I already did that Sir,” I replied, realizing nothing was going to come of this.

“You’ve given it in writing na, so I will look into it.”

“Sir just one more thing,” I said.

“Why has your office not intimated the local police station of Suresh’s leave?”

“I will look into it,” was his reply.

“Sir, how is the police station supposed to calculate 14 days of leave if they don’t have anything in writing and how do I calculate how much more time he is out and about?” I asked, bewildered at the apathy on the other side of the phone.

“I will look into it.”

Was I actually hearing what I did or was this a movie I was watching about a robotic Nazi officer in charge of a prison camp in Auchwitz…where everything was run on procedure and clerical precision and there was no human factor at all.

No. This was not a film about a Jewish concentration camp. This was about a responsible police officer, head of the Sabarmati jail. Routine is paramount. If a convict is entitled to leave, he gets it. If someone complains that this routine leave puts their life at risk, let them make applications everywhere. It will be filed away. Stamp received and replied to. In writing. Someday.

Our next and only  recourse is the court. Wish us luck.

……………..